UPDATE (14 October): Speak and ye shall be rewarded: Diane Ragsdale’s report on the 2011 new play conference held by Arena Stage (mentioned in the footnote to the below essay), with a publication date of 15 October 2012, is now available for purchase at Howlround. But fear not: the report has been published under a Creative Commons license (“We want you to share, copy, distribute, transmit, remix, and adapt this book. Attribute Diane Ragsdale as the orginal author and Center for the Theater Commons /HowlRound.com as the original publisher”), so I offer a .pdf version here. A related piece appeared in yesterday’s Boston Globe.
He wasn’t speaking about the production process for new American drama, but T.S. Eliot may have described it well when he wrote that “Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow” in “The Hollow Men.” This, anyway, is the underlying theme of Nelson Pressley’s “Where are the Kogod Cradle’s new plays?”, which appeared on the Washington Post Web site yesterday. It’s the common practice of artists to build castles in the air. For administrators, it appears to be building institutions and theatres there, far beyond the reach of American dramatists.
But let Pressley tell it in his lede:
When [Washington DC's] Arena Stage moved into its newly expanded $135 million complex two years ago, the company aggressively courted a reputation as a national leader in the field of new American plays. Arena had erected a brand-new theater specifically tailored to producing new, riskier works, and it was the recipient of a multiyear, multimillion-dollar grant supporting seven writers whose plays would be produced at Arena. The hype was huge in Washington and throughout the not-for-profit theater world.
But by spring 2013, Arena will not have produced a single new work by any of its funded writers, all of whom will be at or near the end of their three-year residencies. And the Kogod Cradle — the state-of-the-art, 200-seat theater that helped drive Arena’s debt-inducing expansion — will have gone two years between premiering new American works.
Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith says she is comfortable with the Cradle’s programming record. …
This comfort is revealed in Smith’s backpedalling on her original hopes and plans for the Cradle (the naming of which always struck me as a particularly condescending way to look at the art of the drama in America), which threads through the article like a thick black piece of yarn. Throughout Pressley’s article, former associates of the Arena Stage’s new American plays program gingerly distance themselves from the Cradle, which, after all, is still one of the most generously funded and over-hyped organizations for the development of new American plays, no matter what the reality on the ground. In the bluntest assessment of the current situation, Diane Ragsdale, who oversaw a $1.1 million Mellon Foundation grant to the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena, told Pressley, “There’s often great promise made to communities about what will be delivered when it’s built. It’s rhetoric, but we assume it’s real. What has happened in more than one organization for sure is that the goals are compromised; it happens over and over again. … Look at the programming. That’s often the first thing that gets compromised.” 
As Pressley was writing his Washington Post article, the New York based collective of 13 playwrights, 13P, launched an archival Web site detailing their own history as a group of emerging American dramatists intent on producing their own plays — one from each member — and then shutting down. It is instructive to compare the two institutions. Over a nine-year period, 13P launched 13 fully-staged productions of new American dramas, doing so with an efficiency (and much less money) that should be the envy of Molly Smith and the Arena Cradle project, and without the condescending rhetoric that somehow these plays were babies that needed a long gestation period in some bureaucratic neonatal ICU. I’m not convinced that the 13P model and experience is replicable — its success was a result of luck, novelty, and publicity as well as planning, not to mention the undeniable talent of the playwrights — but the scorecard puts 13P much higher in the standings than Arena, and at a fraction of the cost.
Obviously this has been an interesting few weeks for the mid-Atlantic region of the non-profit theatre world. Philadelphia lost its sole full-time newspaper theatre critic as well as its main service organization for non-profit theatre; about a hundred miles south, though, symptoms of dysfunction are more complicated. At the end of Pressley’s article, Molly Smith says, “I think the Cradle is in the process of becoming. … I think we’re in the process of evolving.” This is a sentiment all well and good for a therapist’s couch, and not inappropriate, I think, for an art form which in America is becoming more and more a very expensive kind of group therapy; whether it’s a sufficient rationalization for an institutional impasse is another question. Everybody likes to have rich friends. But with rich friends like these, who needs enemies?